Death Valley 2012: Day 3

I awoke well before sunrise, laced my boots, and strapped on my backpack. The lack of weight was much appreciated. All I had in my backpack that morning was film, water, and some snacks.

My camera, lens, and tripod spent the night at the dunes. The night was calm and I slept easy knowing that my camera was safe.

It is a one mile hike from my campsite to my shooting location. As I drew closer, I stumbled upon a lonely set of footprints leading the opposite direction. Clearly they were my own footprints from last night, but seeing those lonely tracks across the barren desert evoked a strange feeling — as though I was walking back in time.

While following the footprints, a tiny dot appeared atop a nearby dune. My camera seemed insignificant amidst the rolling sea of sand.

Upon reaching my shooting location, I inserted a film holder, and began metering the scene. The soft glow of morning was fast approaching.

I removed the darkslide, and began my first exposure on Kodak Portra 160VC. The wind was calm, and I could see the first sign of a glow on the right side of the dune. I studied the light, and constantly re-metered the scene. What began as a 25 minute exposure reading was soon 7 minutes.

I find it difficult to shoot in conditions with changing light. You must constantly meter the scene, and decide when it’s best to cut the exposure short. My technique is to average the initial exposure reading with the current exposure reading. If the reading starts at 25 minutes, and eventually meters at 10 minutes — I would cut it short at roughly 17 minutes. I have no clue if this is considered proper technique, but I find that it works quite well.

Morning Dune | Kodak Portra 160VC | Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 300mm

In retrospect, I prefer the evening version from day 2. When you’re enamored by the beauty of a location, sometimes it’s difficult to choose when the light is best. That’s why it’s important for me to experiment, and take as many photos as I can (within limitation).

I made sure my camera was physically level when I took this image, but the result didn’t seem very level. An optical illusion was to blame for the unevenness. I was able to rotate and crop the image to compensate. This is one of the advantages of shooting 8×10. I can significantly rotate and crop such a large negative.

I spent the late morning through early afternoon traversing the backbone of the dominant dune — the one in my photo. My image shows it at a foreshortened angle, but the ridge is actually quite long.

Later that afternoon, I photographed an interesting “s curve” that was located only 100 yards from my morning location. Technically, the photo turned out fine, but I’m still not sure what to think about it. The sun was moving fast, and I lost some of my foreground light. I think the composition still might work, but I’ll have to sit on it for a while.

Sunset Dune: Fuji Velvia 50 8x10 | Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 150mm SW | 1 second @ f/45

Taking two photos in one day was a great feeling. I was very impressed with the Ibex dunes — the lack of people — and the photographic opportunities I enjoyed during my visit. Sticking around any longer would have been asking too much from this great location. It was time to move on, and see what else I could photograph in Death Valley.

21 Responses to “Death Valley 2012: Day 3”

  1. Joseph Rossbach Says:

    Excellent! Sunset Dune is my fav! Love that curvy line, sexy as hell!!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for checking out my blog and commenting on the post. I have a lot of respect for your work! This is an area I hope to spend some more time at on my next trip. I didn’t quite get the shot I was hoping for, but now that I know more about that location, I look forward to a return visit!

  2. David Patterson Says:

    Nice work. Though still beautiful, I agree that the evening shot from Day 2 is more pleasing. I love the sunset dune on Velvia 50. I think you have just the right balance between shadow and light leading in from the foreground, and the curve toward the distant dunes is yummy!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks David. As much as I have to try and plan for shots, sometimes it’s those unplanned shots that end up stealing the show. Though this trip is still fresh in my memory, I can’t wait to get back to DV and see what else I can find.

  3. Arnaud Says:

    Hey Ben,
    I definitely love Sunset dune. I find it more appealing (colors and composition). I love the way the dune curve draws the eye, the rich color tones and contrasts between the smooth dune et the grains on the foreground.
    I’ll be there in July, but i’m affraid it’s going to be too hot to experiment with my new 4×5 🙂

    • Ben Horne Says:

      You’re a braver man than I am. You certainly won’t have any problems with footprints in the sand in July, but man-oh-man… it’s going to be hot. Congrats on the new 4×5, and make sure you keep that film cool!

  4. Ron Carroll Says:

    Enjoyed the post, commentary and video. Thank you. A suggestion… Two more cameras: one for your head monitoring your footprints behind you, and another one on your left, for a different profile. Or maybe all 4 on your head, for a 360 pano. Just a thought…

    Anyway, it’s great stuff and I always look forward to your posts. And one day — before too much longer — I’m going to make it to DV in the winter. The other set of footprints you see will be mine.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Good call on the extra camera viewpoints. 🙂 In all honesty though, I am always looking for new ways of doing the video. After a while, I get tried of the same viewpoints again and again. I may eventually rig up something for a over the shoulder viewpoint, or other crazy stuff like that. Needless to say, I have a lot of time to kill out there. 🙂

      You’ll have a blast in DV during the winter. All you have to do is get a bit off the beaten path, and you can find some locations that you’ll have to yourself.

  5. Roger Aure Says:

    Great shots Ben. I prefer the Sunset dune. The other shot has a middle ground (right part) that doesn’t appeal that much to me. Seems like a great location. Looking forward to follow the rest of the trip.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I agree with you about the midground of the first shot. Though it looked good to my eye, it didn’t translate to film quite like I had hoped. The evening shot from that same viewpoint made the foreground a stronger element. I hope to return to the location of the Sunset Dune shot and see what other conditions I can experience there. I’m confident that I can get the exact shot I want, but it’ll take some time. Not bad for a first visit to this location though. It often takes about 3 visits before I walk away with the shot I had in mind.

  6. Karl French Says:

    I think the sunset dune shot is quite successful. Really beautiful.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Karl. When I saw that line in the dune, I knew it would catch some nice light. I scaled that dune earlier in the day, but I made sure to walk on the west side of the crest so as not to put footprints in my own composition.

  7. Laura Says:

    Sunset dune, definitely. It’s simpler, has a dramatic leading line into the picture, interesting texture and great warm colors.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Laura. I had envisioned a curvy dune shot on all my previous visits to DV. This is pretty close to what I had envisioned, but I know I need to continue to work this location to get exactly what I had hoped for.

  8. Gregory Berg Says:

    Agree with the others who prefer the sunset dune. Love the composition and light on that one! Also wanted to say thanks again for coming to speak to our SMUG group last month. Really enjoyed that!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for the kind words. Speaking at the SMUG meeting last month was great. It’s awesome to see that many people who are so passionate about photography.

  9. Chris Froelich Says:


    Love both of them. The sunset shot is, of course, gorgeous and technically perfect, but I like the cool tones and different composition of the evening shot. I think I like it because it is completely different than the 50 dune post cards in the Furnace Creek gift shop. I just got back from DV yesterday and I must say it was an experiment in patience (or frustration). You have inspired me to get into large format and I brought my newly acquired 4×5. I was there for 5 sunsets and 5 sunrises and only pulled the shutter once. Mostly because of high winds, but the one morning I had calm air, I just couldn’t get a composition I found pleasing on the ground glass. That was at Zabrinski’s point and even though every person I talked to said I must go there, I just didn’t think it would translate well onto film. It seemed more of a scene to be appreciated for itself but I took the shot anyway because it was my last morning and the car was packed.

    PS. did you hold the movie camera upside-down when you went under the dark cloth?

    • Ben Horne Says:

      For the videos, I did indeed hold the camera upside down. I figure it’s just easier to view the video that way.

      Death valley can be a fickle beast. If all the elements align, the vast scale helps produce amazing conditions at sunrise and sunset. There is no guarantee that this will happen, and it can be very frustrating at times. I know what you mean about the wind — it makes photography with LF nearly impossible. That being said, I’ve learned to immensely appreciate those moments of majesty, and roll with the punches when I get skunked. This is my 4th consecutive year visiting DV, and I’m only now getting to know the potential of this location. I look forward to my return in 2013.

      Congrats on the new 4×5, and I hope you’ll get some great work from DV in the years to come!

  10. Mohsen al-Dajani Says:

    Ben, thanks for great story, as usual when I get bored, and feel less love with photography I come to this station, second day, I get my camera and head to the wild. Your blog is one of the best on the internet when it comes to large format photography. Really full of inspiration.

    Regarding the Sunset Dune shot (we have too many in my country.. Saudi Arabia), I think it has large part of black that is not necessary, and ruin the image somewhat, the sky as you mentioned is cloudless so I would remove it/crop it, plus its blue is not equal. This dune shot to me is very ordinary, not like the rest of your superb work.

    One of the problem I find in LF is that it needs lots of technical works (everything manual) and this sometimes takes from creativity/experiments that is available in the digital world but when the two things achieved, nothing like it especially at the size you shoot. I use my 45SU ebony for detail shots, and when DoF is huge, I can not see many details in your dune shot, except for the sand ripples at the bottom.

    Thanks again and keep the good work.

    An old fellow on NPN

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for the feedback! Dune shots have always been frustrating for me, but now I’m developing a better sense of what to look for with my photography. I don’t think I got that ideal curvy dune shot I was after on this trip, but I look forward to heading back again next year.

      One thing in particular that I will strive for next year is a dune photo without sky. I noticed that if I cropped off the sky from the sunset dune photo, it took on an entirely different appearance because it was no longer grounded in reality. In the case of my second shot from this blog post, cropping the sky doesn’t quite work because of the diagonal line leading in from the left near the top. My goal next year when I return is to find an intimate shot of a sinuous dune — perhaps with my long lens.

  11. pixelogist Says:

    i enjoy reading ur blog (and viewing ur great shots) keep it up

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: